Ed Firstenburg

Ed Firstenburg

Banker, his wife helped community projects around the county

Scott Hewitt Columbian staff writer
August 22, 2010

Ed W. Firstenburg, the founder of First Independent Bank and a leading Vancouver philanthropist, died Saturday.

He was 97 years old. The cause of death was not disclosed in a statement from First Independent. Firstenburg’s wife and partner in philanthropy, Mary, died early last year at age 91. They’d been married 72 years.

Look around Clark County, and you’ll find many public buildings and private facilities branded with the Firstenburg name — from a stylish fountain and student commons building at Washington State University Vancouver to the gleaming new patient tower at Southwest Washington Medical Center.

Ed and Mary Firstenburg’s milestone $15 million gift to the hospital was the largest single gift by living donors to any cause in Clark County history when they made it in 2005. It broke through a philanthropic ceiling, hospital chief Joe Kortum said last year, and changed what was considered possible in Clark County.

“People think differently now. All of a sudden, others somehow felt more comfortable stepping up and making gifts above $1 million,” he said.

But the Firstenburgs made plenty of those “smaller” gifts — in the $1 million range — as well. A $1 million donation to Innovative Services Northwest resulted in the Mary Firstenburg Family Center, a home for the agency’s many programs for people with disabilities. A $1 million donation helped build a Student Commons building at Washington State University Vancouver — and came with a $500,000 donation for the stone fountain at the center of campus. There was a $1 million donation to the Clark County Skills Center Foundation, benefiting students on a vocational track.

And last year, the Washington State School for the Blind accepted a $10,000 Firstenburg donation for library books in Braille, large print or audio formats. Firstenburg himself visited the library on his 96th birthday to read alongside students — and recall the Tom Swift adventures he loved as a child.

But Firstenburg may be best known as the name on the east-side community center that locals were promised when annexed into the city in 1997. The Firstenburgs made a $3 million gift to that project at a time when the city was scraping together real estate taxes and other funds to make the promise a reality. The Firstenburg Community Center opened its doors on Northeast 136th Avenue in 2006.

Started by teaching

Firstenburg was a Seattle native, born Jan. 22, 1913. He always wanted to be a banker, but after earning an MBA from the University of Washington during the Great Depression, he took a job teaching high school business in Ridgefield — a move that sparked his lifelong passion for education.

Mary, whom he met in Seattle, was going to be a missionary — until she met Firstenburg and fell in love. The couple lived in Ridgefield for 40 years, and raised three children there. Late in life their friends remarked on Firstenburg’s abiding love for his wife even as the couple crossed into their seventh decade of marriage.

In 1936, Firstenburg made a career change and took a job as an assistant cashier at Ridgefield State Bank. According to the bank’s statement, his eye for innovation and dedication to customer service helped grow the bank to $1 million in assets by 1944.

Eventually, Firstenburg became majority shareholder, bought the bank outright in 1950 and merged several local banks into the new First Independent Bank. He was its longtime chairman and was key to innovations such as ATMs and drive-up customer service. Mary Firstenburg served on the board of directors for more than 40 years.

The bank has become an important local institution with dozens of branches, including one at the Waterford at Fairway Village and Glenwood Springs retirement homes. Firstenburg resigned from the bank’s board in 2005, after a run of 69 years — but even after that, he continued to staff a desk and serve customers at the Waterford branch.

Illustrious family

Ed Firstenburg is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Son Bill Firstenburg is CEO and chairman of the board of First Independent; son Bruce E. Firstenburg chairs the bank’s holding company, First Independent Investment Group; and daughter Joyce Chiles is a Director Emeritus of the bank. Daughter-in-law Jeanne Firstenburg was recently named President of First Independent. Grandsons Jeffrey and Scott both hold management positions at First Independent, which is the region’s largest locally owned, privately held bank currently with assets of nearly $900 million.

Ed Firstenburg was named Clark County’s First Citizen in 1962. He was named the Community Foundations’s Philanthropist of the Year in 2006. And he was the Grand Marshal of Ridgefield’s Fourth of July parade in 2009.

Funeral arrangements will be announced early this week, according to First Independent.

“The tower bears his name and we believe it’s a true reflection of his love of this community,” said Rainy Atkins, Southwest Washington Medical Center’s chief operating officer, on Saturday.

“This is the kind of person he was, with such a bright and vibrant spirit. I walk through our beautiful tower and feel so honored to have been a recipient of that.”

She added that the Firstenburg Community Center is “my little grandson’s favorite place — a place of play and happiness, such a positive place.”

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